There is a song, the words of which say, “This old man, he plays one . . .”
and those lyrics popped into my head while I was working on the stamps for the
printmaking game, “WeeWoodie Rembrandt Press.” I thought about Confucius’
advice that said, “Better to play games than do nothing at all.” That was
advice in reference to what a person can do in their old age.
As I try to think of ways to restore my lost career as a teacher—what I had
become when I was at the University of Washington School Of Art—I find that
career is probably lost forever. In a country where teachers—and especially
professors—are as much maligned as they are valued, how can it be otherwise?
I watched a video on TED talks, of Kiran Sethi, titled “Kids
Take Charge,” and it brought tears of joy to my eyes to see this teacher,
who started Riverside School in India doing so well with so little. Her talk is
part of a series of inspiring lectures from around the world, assembled by
After I watched this ten-minute video, I turned back to my project—adding words
to 51 images taken from my video of assembling a WeeWoodie Rembrandt Press. I am
making them into stamp images, which I will print out and . . . and . . . I don’t
know what will be the next step. It is, after all, only a game.
When Lynda, my wife, plays solitaire on her tablet, she doesn’t think about
being productive or that the result of her game will add up to anything. Although
the programmers for this digital game have added a few bells and whistles such
as keeping score, these are not important to her. Whoever wrote down the length
of time it took to win a game of Solitaire using real cards, on a piece of real
paper? People play games for the fun of it, to pass the time doing something;
better to play games than do nothing at all.
Yet, the contrast between what people like Pearl Arrendondo and Kiran Sethi
are attempting and achieving and what I am about is too great for me to ignore.
What can I do about it? I think about it all the time. The skill to make these
stamps, if you trace back the steps that have been required to get to this
point, and the desire to make a game out of Rembrandt’s achievements has taken
me fifty years.
Surely, it must amount to something. If I could transport myself to
Riverside School, and show Kiran Sethi our mini etching presses, and ask if it
would be possible to make presses like this for 1% the 2 hundred million
children in India, and grow a profitable company from this and put money back
into education, would she say yes? She would turn to one of the children in her
school, and that child would say, “I can.”
Can I not do this in the USA? Is it my impression, or is it true, that our
children would not be able to reply in the same way as Ms. Sethi’s students.
Why is it my impression that in order to grow a company to make presses and
related products for kids I have to spend hours at my computer designing a
game, or taking time to make a DVD for the Brooklyn Art Museum, or autograph
and package gifts for my associates in the Halfwood Press venture?
In the design of the presses and the theories about learning printmaking—and
justification for that learning—there is a gift, given to me by hundreds of
people I met in the course of my fifty years in art and teaching. My fear is
that I will be the cause of the loss of this gift; it would take someone five
years to do what I have done in 50 years if they would study what I am doing at
the moment and, like an engineer, reverse the process to get at the essence and
value of what it is that I have achieved.
If I find this person, or a coven of people, who could see the value of my
work, then I would win Emeralda: Games for the gifts of life.
In our ‘seventies today, my wife and I have many friends of similar age,
but the majority of our friends and acquaintances are a few years younger and
they make up the Baby Boomer population. Quite a number are financially
well-off, sufficiently that they spend their retirement traveling and otherwise
enjoying the fruits of their years of employment. A number of them have two
homes—one in Washington and one in Arizona. Their seasonal greeting cards have
letters enclosed, bragging about the accomplishments of their children and
grandchildren. We enjoy these, but we also are concerned. There are danger
signs, and I want to mention these and then suggest alternatives to the course
that our generation is on.
Primarily this has to do with global issues, and these are huge. Our
generations, the “wisdom boomers,” I call the Baby Boomers and ours (born in
the early ‘40s, a little ahead of the curve) are having a good time, but we
should think ahead. We have Social Security and a Professor’s Pension coming in
and both of these are at risk if we fail to ensure the education of young
citizens of the USA. We can ensure the learning preparedness of the very young,
and we can invest some of our money and intellectual capital in education for
I think our friends who are over 50 are being taken down a primrose path
by, among others, the entertainment industry. My theory (call it conspiracy if
you like) is that US Americans are encouraged to consume as much as possible in
order to keep US Industry going and keep Americans employed. It’s like a timber
company encouraging everyone to cut down trees to keep the sawmill going, blind
to the inevitable barren hills that will result.
Our traveling friends seem not to give a second thought to hopping on a jet
to travel, often for the most trivial reasons—a birthday party, a round of
golf, or a cruise. I’m afraid this happens in my own family, too. The “carbon
footprint” was a popular expression for awhile, but it fails to stop the
enormous consumption of fossil fuels. This is an environmental issue. It is
ironic that conservation is taught in the schools, but the lessons do not seem
to come home.
This is all old news and if you have read this far, I am preaching to the
choir; and I don’t think anyone is going to cancel their plans for a winter
trip to Mexico or Hawaii just because I’m writing these things down. Everyone
knows these things.
Your Social Security and Retirement plan is an education issue
Young people are alone in paying money into your social security for as
long as the current system is in force. Young people, as the wage-earners of tomorrow,
are alone in paying into retirement plans of various kinds—their own and ours,
Social Security has been around since 1935 and is always under discussion
as to its liquidity and viability. Retirement plans are generally based on US
Business and Industry plus the value of the dollar on the world money market.
These all depend on the employment of US Americans, and as competition for
productive work grows with the growing world population, no one will get the
paying jobs merely because they are US Citizens. American youth will have to
compete, albeit indirectly, for the jobs paying the most money and, hence, put
the most money into social security and retirement plans for us Seniors.
If children in other countries come out of school ready to work before US
American children are ready to work, the jobs will go to those other children.
They will pay into their tax systems, wherever they are, and their industrial
base will get the benefits of those children’s educations. The country with the
best education system wins.
Seniors in the USA are required to invest in education if they want their
future dollars to be worth much on the world market, their Social Security
checks to keep coming, and their retirement funds to keep paying their
pensions. If US American youth are not as well educated as foreign children
are, they will not get the best jobs. If US American youth are educated in the
wrong way (such as training in over-spending, high consumption of resources and
wasting valuable, early education years), they will work for foreigners at
lower-paying jobs, and their lower salaries will yield lower Social Security
input and poorer retirement funds for themselves. Industry will suffer, which
will, in turn, be reflected in lower payouts from pension plans.
When industry needs new ideas, methods and products, it has been effective
in the past to innovate, invent, discover and imagine new industries or change
old ones to meet the changing times. In pursuit of new ideas—especially new
ideas that will create new jobs for youth—entrepreneurs are encouraged to come
forward with innovative new businesses. As a former teacher, an artist and
designer of new art-making products and recreational learning games, I qualify
as an entrepreneur.
From this role I am acquainted with financing methods for new businesses—from
bank loans and equity investments (which I have used) to venture capital—so I
know what “exit plan” means. Investors want to know what the entrepreneur plans
to do if and when the company succeeds. Will he quit and move on to another
venture? Or, what if he dies? Is the entrepreneur indispensable, or does he or
she just think so?
There is another kind of exit plan which you don’t hear people talk about,
and that is the self-made man’s exit plan. No one needs to tell me if it is
time to quit; I am not one of those stubborn-heads that insists on running the
show even though he or she may be running the show out of town. If a CEO is
bad, the company will go down. Venture capitalists have good reason to assume
control of a venture if their combined wisdom says it will protect their
investment and grow profits.
The USA Venture
American capitalism is a kind of venture, but it is not the only kind of
economic model. Education of the young is the only kind of model that has a
chance to succeed, and without learning the lessons of education, an entire
country’s economy can fail. We don’t want the USA to go down in history as a
lesson in what happens when the educational infrastructure of a country fails
to take into account this reality.
What seniors can do is invest more in education, not in more consumerism.
It is a fallacy—a reckless gamble—to think that consuming more fossil fuels and
leisure lifestyles will help US industrial growth and a secure economic
outlook. The traveler who thinks his or her fare to Mexico will help the young
people of America get a better education while they are enjoying the beach is a
fool. The “snow birds” who think their winter-time trip to Arizona is somehow
good for the economy and only a little damaging to the environment are fools,
If you argue, I will argue that kids in Korea, for example, are spending
enormous amounts of time in school and minimal amounts in consumerism. What are
they studying at with such industry? Could it be that they know something we
adults don’t know? Could it be that they are learning things that US American
kids are not learning, and—like us adults—don’t know? I wonder if the word is
out that those crazy Americans are burning up the world’s resources and
everybody else better be learning what to do about it and how.
Could you learn how to change American consumer patterns in a foreign
school? US children seldom learn more than one language—English—so it will be
hard for us to talk about it with foreigners. It already is, in fact, almost
I wanted to write my exit plan, and that is to get a factory school going
where US American kids can take the lead in learning some art methods and also
learn about running a factory making things for those art methods. And then I
want to leave this factory school in the hands of young people, who can make it
succeed where I have only failed.
Reverse engineering is the process by which an item—anything from a
mousetrap to a combat jet fighter—can be taken apart and designed from the
pieces so as to end up with a replica without the need for design and testing.
When I was a little kid, I liked to take things apart to see how they work.
Clocks, wind-up toys, and—one time—a toy dump truck. It was when I took apart
the toy dump truck that I learned something about Post-World War II
reconstruction in Japan. The truck was made in Japan from tin that had been a
Folgers Coffee can, evident from what I found printed inside the shell of the
This was not as much an example of reverse engineering as it was a blend of
that and a lesson in economic development. The lesson was that if there is a
market for, say, toy tin dump trucks and you have a supply of empty coffee cans
and willing hands, you can provide jobs and income from the customers for toys.
Japanese families could not, at that time, afford to buy their kids toys like
this, but the Americans could, and we know that the effort to restore the
Japanese economy was successful. I was one of the lucky American kids who, in
1947, at age 6, got the toy.
The story continued in a way because today I am able to think through the
events that gave me the toy truck and I experienced the desire to take it
apart, see how it was assembled (I still remember the little tin tabs and slots
that made it easy to take apart and put back together). Also, I remember my
surprise at seeing the Folgers label—the same tin can that was on our kitchen
shelf—inside the truck. Of course, the truck was “Made in Japan” and although I
didn’t know anything about postwar reconstruction, the tin can had come full
circle with an economic benefit for the Japanese and Americans both.
How to destroy jobs
We need jobs in the USA for Americans, according to what I hear and see on
TV from many sources. We need job creation. And when people think that jobs are
being sent overseas, then we think this is wrong because we need people to be
employed here—not abroad. Of course, every country wants policies that help its
people do meaningful and profitable work so we have education programs,
training and sustainability measures.
Job creation is an interesting idea—to make a job where one did not exist
before. For example, I have a job. But as I do my job I know that I am putting
someone out of work because it is a job that anyone can do. This morning, when
this concept of destroying jobs came into my head, I was gluing a label on a
box. It’s something anyone could do—from an average 8-year old kid to an older
person with some disability that made this task a reasonable one.
The problem with hiring someone is that I had only four boxes to paste
labels on; besides, after training the person (which would take about 15
minutes followed up by some checking for quality) they would be done in less
than a half hour. The other problem is that only one person, at this moment, is
ready to buy the box and its contents, and the hourly labor would take about
12% of the gross net—just for this label! This does not include the cost of
printing the label or, working back to my earlier work, the design of the
The cost of research and development for this box is a factor to consider
in this job, for if it had not been for the ten years of product development
that preceded the labeling of this box, then there would be no job.
I am at fault for not developing the business so that labeling boxes for,
say, one-thousand boxes is a job that no person—young, old, handicapped or any
person at all—will get to execute for a salary or contract. Instead, I struggle
every day, as I have for years, trying to find a co-founder who is the business
person in this venture. And when I am not searching, I am doing menial tasks—job
destroying as I go.
There are at least 1,000 people in the USA alone who would buy this box for
its contents, a Do-It-Yourself etching press for under $1,000. But, for lack of
capital to contract for preparing the boxes at a price commensurate with the
retail price, the job of labeling the box is not created.
Reverse engineer this
To apply the process of reverse engineering, take the size of the market
and determine what the value of job creation is. The press that goes in the box
is only one of six presses in the line of presses that I designed and sold to
130 people to date, for prices ranging from $500 in 2004 for the smallest,
introductory models to a high of $4,500 today for the largest model we make.
Find the size of the market by sampling the demographics—the people who
bought the presses. There is the former pilot, a woman, who is active as an
artist and in her community. There is the retired police chief from Chicago,
who paid an added amount of money for his press so he could have Number 100.
There is the publisher of a national paper on fine art printmaking who, despite
that she already has a $5,000 etching press, wanted a small one and exchange an
advertisement in her paper and will write a review of the press. There is the
man who flew from England to Seattle to learn how to make the press himself,
and then went back to establish a workshop like mine to make and sell presses
in the UK. A woman bought a used press and is exploring an “experience” type of
service of Printmaking Birthday parties. In Canada, a woman is studying the feasibility
of being the Canadian distributor and providing hands-on press making workshops
based on my kit.
From the demographic, I estimated, in 2008, the potential number of people
who would buy our presses to about 400,000 in the USA alone. I have sold
presses in 12 foreign countries, too, in countries such as Singapore (2
presses), with a large population and high incomes.
The presses two attractive aspects: Its looks and its functionality. It won
an international design competition in Italy last year in the “Unexpected
Design” category for its design and also for its inclusion of an online
This is why, whenever I find myself responding to an order for a press, I
feel like I am destroying jobs for people who, if a business person developed
this enterprise to the scale to which it can grow, would work for this company